Cecil John Rhodes: As divisive in death as in life

2015-03-22 15:00

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He is as controversial in death as he was in life.

More than 110 years after his passing, British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy is being hotly debated across the length and breadth of South Africa after students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) tossed human waste at his statue.

The students contend the statue represents everything Rhodes stood for: racism, plunder, white supremacy, colonialism, pillaging, dispossession and the oppression of black people.

The debate spilt over to Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape after a student joked that the statue should be moved to Grahamstown if they don’t want it at UCT.

This set off a social-media explosion, with black students at Rhodes “marching in solidarity” with their UCT counterparts and taking to Twitter under the tag #RhodesSoWhite to detail their daily experiences of racism and white privilege.

Now anxiety lingers over the two campuses as students say they fear a “race revolution”.

History has revealed Rhodes as power-hungry and greedy, using mercenaries and gangs to evict people from their land down the barrel of a gun. If that didn’t work, there was always bribery and corruption.

When he died in 1902, Rhodes was one of the world’s wealthiest men. He had a vast mining empire and had seized more than 8.8?million square kilometres of land through the annexation of present-day Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

In 1887 he told the House of Assembly in Cape Town: “The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.”

He also said: “I prefer land to n**gers.” Still, UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price says while Rhodes was clearly a racist and a villain, his legacy should not be deleted as it is part of South Africa’s history.

“He was a great man, did many things and did them well. He was a great politician and an imperial governor of the Cape. What he achieved was unusual, and he was a self-made man. But the attitude and means he used to get there were not right.

“He was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.”

Price’s personal opinion is that Rhodes’ legacy should not be wished away. “The problem is that the statue is at the centre of campus and it acquires a meaning that he gave us all we have, we love him and we look up to him. Actually, we don’t. Some admire him, some don’t, but I think he is part of our history. [The statue] shouldn’t be destroyed. It should be moved, but remain somewhere on campus.”

He said UCT was built on land donated by Rhodes, and the statue was erected in 1934. But Rhodes is not only an affront to black people but to Afrikaners too.

The calls to have the statue removed are not new, said Price, adding that Afrikaner students demanded its removal in the 1950s.

Rhodes Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela agreed, saying he did not share the view that history should be obliterated.

Not only was Rhodes University named after the imperialist, the institution was also built from funds he donated.

And the illustrious and prestigious Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is funded by the proceeds of his vast wealth.

Recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship – considered the most prestigious academic award in the world – include former US president Bill Clinton, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, anti-apartheid activist and lawyer Bram Fischer, businessman Julian Ogilvie Thompson, US astronomer Edwin Hubble, musician and actor Kris Kristofferson, and US author and feminist social critic Naomi Wolf.

Mabizela said the person of Rhodes should be separated from the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship.

“The Rhodes scholarship has assumed an identity of academic excellence. Cecil John Rhodes must be turning in his grave to see this institution named after him transforming bit by bit.”

He was quick to add that Rhodes should not be celebrated. “He did horrendous things. History is there for everyone to see what he thought of black people. It’s a painful and devastating past, but we must learn to deal with it.”

Siphesihle Dumisa, a recipient of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship in 2010, said although she feels the statue should be moved and Rhodes University renamed, a distinction should be made between Rhodes the “despot” and how the money he left is being used.

“The struggles the students at UCT and Rhodes are fighting are about the legacy of Cecil as a leader of his time and how that feeds into transformation issues now,” she said.

“But the scholarship is now benefiting a lot of black students who are contributing positively to society. Rhodes was an imperialist but he had good values – he valued education and had an entrepreneurial spirit.”

This view was decried on Thursday night, however, at UCT’s student parliament, which overwhelmingly voted that the statue be removed.

The sitting lasted a number of hours and was the scene of passionate debate about the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

They pointed out that the campaign was about more than just a statue, but the transformation of UCT.

“We are new blacks who refuse to conform and give in to this idea of integration being conforming to white culture, because that is not integration?... Instead of UCT being an African university, they insist on being a European university in Africa,” said Mamelo Melepho, the SRC member in charge of sports and recreation.

“We’ve been told transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and now we are saying if it could not be achieved 20 years ago, what is the hold up 20 years later?”

– Additional reporting by S’thembile Cele

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